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New Research Suggests Doctors Over-treat Patients to Avoid Malpractice Consequences

No one likes to think their doctor is fallible, but doctors — just like the rest of us — are human and do occasionally make mistakes. This is why malpractice insurance exists, but this hasn’t stopped many doctors from overtreating their patients, according to a recent study. Why are doctors over-treating their patients, and is this something that needs to be changed?

What Is Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is defined as any action or lack of action by a physician that causes harm to a patient. It only tends to make the news during high-profile cases that result in the death of a patient or harm caused to multiple patients over a long period of time, but it happens more frequently than the average person might notice. In 2012 alone, more than $3 billion in malpractice settlements was paid out over the course of the year. This averaged out to approximately 1 payment every 43 minutes. 

Malpractice is listed as the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States, so it’s understandable doctors are overly cautious when it comes to patient treatment, but where do they cross the line from caution into overtreatment?

Overtreatment and Waste

More than 2,000 doctors — both specialists and general practitioners — were surveyed to learn what they thought about this trend of over treatment. Only 5% of the doctors polled believed all the care provided was actually necessary, with more than 85% justifying their over treatment by citing a fear of malpractice. 

It’s not all the fault of the doctors. Patient demand is another cause for over treatment. Patients come into the office convinced that they need a specific test or treatment, and it’s often easier to oblige them than it is to argue with them or convince them the treatment is unnecessary. 

Profit is also a factor. An astonishing 71% of doctors who responded to the survey stated they’re more likely to overtreat a patient if the results will be profitable for them. This isn’t due to a need for additional financial security — most of the surveyed professionals are secure in their own finances — so the only explanation for this particular reason is sheer greed. 

This trend toward overtreatment is not only unnecessary — it’s wasteful. These unnecessary services are found to account for more than $200 billion of the $750 billion in excess spending each year. It also removes necessary resources from other patients who might actually require the services being wasted in unnecessary treatment. 

Solutions to Overtreatment

What can be done to stop or at least mitigate the trend of overtreatment? The solution starts in school — medical school, that is. Most of the physicians polled in the recent survey believe new training outlining care criteria could help to reduce overtreatment. This isn’t a perfect solution — physicians will almost always have their own way of treating a patient or approaching a situation — but it could help reduce the amount of resources spent on unnecessary tests and procedures. 

Widespread access to electronic medical records could also help prevent overtreatment. While these records need to be kept secure, being able to access a patient’s record at the push of a button could allow a doctor with a new patient to quickly look over medical history and determine if any requested procedures have already been performed. 

Doctor shopping isn’t limited to people seeking opioid prescriptions — often it will happen when a patient isn’t happy with the answer they receive from their current doctor. Making it easier to access medical records will make it simpler to identify these doctor shoppers and prevent excessive overtreatment. 

Time to Take Action?

Medical practices shouldn’t become synonymous with overtreatment. By changing practice protocols and improving communication between doctors, professionals can help reduce waste dramatically. It may not be something we ever manage to eliminate — there are plenty of doctors practicing today who believe it’s better to overtreat than to potentially miss something and leave themselves open to malpractice lawsuits.

The trick will be finding a balance between protecting doctors and providing sufficient care for patients while still curbing this trend of overtreatment. Doctors protecting themselves isn’t a bad thing unless it comes at the expense of their patients. 

Αbout the author
Kate Harveston is an online journalist with particular interests in social change, health, politics and news. She holds a Bachelors in English and enjoys reading and hiking in her spare time. If you enjoy her work, you can visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased

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